Editor’s note: Recent events regarding minority groups in American culture, politics and law enforcement prompted the Johnson City Press to take a deeper look at ethnic, religious and gender/sexual identities in the Johnson City area. This is the second in a three-day series of articles regarding that spectrum of marginalized populations.
Some area Muslims say honest dialogue is key to promoting understanding between different communities. They also say beginning that conversation can be difficult with so much misinformation and mistrust of Islam in this country.
“Engaging with the community through service projects, social events and activities will foster more discussion among groups,” said Moin Uddin, an engineering professor at East Tennessee State University who lives with his wife, Tamanna, in Johnson City. “No matter what angle you look at, we are more similar than different. Religion preaches love, which should bind us together.”
Uddin, a native of Bangladesh and a naturalized U.S. citizen, said he feels largely welcomed in the area, although he has been involved in some awkward exchanges. One such experience happened at an office Christmas party.
“My boss brought some spaghetti,” Uddin said. “He told me, ‘It would taste really good with meat, but I know you don’t eat meat, so I cooked it with crabmeat and shrimp so that you can eat it.’ I was grateful for his thoughtfulness.”
Dealing With Misconceptions
It was one of the most “shocking” questions Dr. Shahram Malik has had to answer as both a Muslim and physician. He was seeing a heart attack patient at his practice in Kingsport when the man asked him how it felt to treat “an infidel.” The man also told his doctor he thought the Quran instructed all Muslims to kill infidels.
“I told him that being his physician it was my responsibility to take good care of him, not only because my profession demands it, but also because my religion commands me to do it,” Malik said. “Surprisingly, if one reads the English translation of the Quran, one will not even find the word infidel in it. In fact, it came into vogue when the European crusaders used this word for Muslims.”
Malik is a Pakistan-born physician who lives with his wife and children in Johnson City. He recently became a U.S. citizen, taking his oath at a ceremony held at ETSU in September.
The best way to increase awareness and understanding about Islam, Malik said, is is to find out what Islam truly teaches.
“We should see what principles are common between Islam and other major American religions, and then unite in upholding them,” he said. “We should organize different seminars with these religious groups and other local organizations to increase the awareness.”
Malik said it is equally important for people to understand the local Muslim community is very diverse, with people from many cultures and national backgrounds.
“Like all communities, the Muslim community is not perfect and there may be some whose behavior is not good, lack conviction, or do not follow the teachings of Islam,” he said. “All Muslims are concerned about their safety, especially after the latest tragedies and current toxic situation in this country.”
Getting Better Acquainted
“My family and I moved to Johnson City over two decades ago,” Mahmood Sabri, a faculty member at Northeast State Community College, Blountville, said recently. “We were welcomed in the community with open arms. My children went to Johnson City schools and ETSU. The teachers and professors were very kind and understanding. “
Unfortunately, Sabri said, there have been some issues involving vandalism at the local mosque.
“Some Muslims in the community have also voiced about harassment at work and children being picked on in the schools,” he said.
Born in Pakistan, Sabri has spent most of his adult life as a citizen of the United States.
“Our small community consists of men and women who want the same things as their non-Muslim neighbors — a reasonably comfortable life and a bright future for our children,” he said. “Most of us are highly educated and hardworking professionals such as doctors, engineers, pharmacists, college professors and small businessmen. We came here in search of a better life. In return, we work hard and contribute to the society.”
Sabri, who currently serves as president of the Johnson City Evening Rotary Club, said interaction between East Tennesseans of different religions and backgrounds helps to promote friendship.
“We encourage the public at large to visit our mosque and see for themselves if their perception of Islam and Muslims matches reality,” Sabri said. “It is better for everyone to live in harmony and stay away from mistrust and fear.”